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Smith-Mundt Act

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OverviewEdit

The Smith-Mundt Act sets forth guidelines for the official dissemination of information about the United States and its policies at home and abroad. [1] According to the act, the American government is legally prohibited from distributing information intended for foreign audiences within the U.S. Designed to prevent the use of domestic propaganda, the Act has served both as a foundation for American Public Diplomacy and as the subject of heated debate regarding public access to information.

History and EvolutionEdit

BackgroundEdit

The Smith-Mundt Act, more formally known as the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, was signed into law by President Truman on January 27, 1948. Its intent and philosophy were based in large part on the recommendation of management expert Andrew W. MacMahon, who believed that “Modern international relations lie between people, not merely governments, [therefore] international information activities are integral to the conduct of foreign policy.” [2] From this fundamental assumption that foreign publics' perception and influence are of utmost importance to a nation’s foreign policy interests, the Act outlined a series of principles and procedures aimed at “[promoting] the better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” [3] The need for international information campaigns was heightened by the proliferation of Cold War propaganda, which pressured the U.S. into taking action. Then Secretary of State George C. Marshall articulated America's reasoning, declaring that “as long as propaganda is engaged in, we are faced with the necessity of taking action ourselves. [It is essential to make known] what our motives are, what our actions have been and what we have done to assist people outside our borders. It is very hard for us here at home to comprehend the degree with which we are not comprehended and the degree with which we are misinterpreted” [4] The proposed solution was the dissemination and exchange of ideas internationally, which included educational and cultural exchanges through the Fulbright programs as well as targeted information campaigns. [5] In his essay, “Rethinking Smith-Mundt,” Public Diplomacy analyst Matt Armstrong discusses the Act’s original objectives:

Smith-Mundt would be the answer to and would make permanent and fund both “slow and “fast” engagement and communications with the world. Cultural and educational exchange programs were the “slow” and the information activities were the “fast.”…The bill would increase the resources available and institutionalize Senator William Fulbright’s exchanges that had previously been authorized on a limited scale…as well as expand the mandate to include books, cultural tours and exchanges, most of what is now considered “public diplomacy.” [6]

In the interest of furthering its ambitious aims, the Smith-Mundt committee detailed six key requirements in the Act’s implementation in order to assure its efficacy and legitimacy:[7]

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Explain the motives of the United States
  3. Bolster morale and extend hope
  4. Give a true and convincing picture of American Life, methods and ideals
  5. Combat misrepresentation and distortion
  6. Aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy

The bill was duly passed with the Committee’s confident belief that “truth can be a powerful weapon on behalf of peace. It is the firm belief of the Committee that H.R. 3342, with all the safeguards included in the bill, will constitute an important step in the right direction toward the adequate dissemination of the truth about America, our ideals, and our people.” [8]

Section 501: The Domestic Dissemination ProhibitionEdit

Among the provisions set forth by the Act, none has garnered greater controversy than that prohibiting the domestic dissemination of information intended for foreign audiences. According to the law, “no funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States.” Only after twelve years could such material be made available to citizen journalists, academics, or members of Congress “for examination purposes only.”[9] The aim was to prevent government misuse of information to manipulate the public, a fear that was intrinsically linked to the political situation of the time, namely the memories of World War II and the pressures of the Cold War. Armstrong expands on the significance of the historical context, noting the effect of ideological tensions in the international system:

The backdrop for the Smith-Mundt Bill…was a growing global ideological struggle. The Communist threat continued to grow in volume, reach, and effectiveness in the new global information environment. On the minds of some in the House and Senate during this time were President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee for Public Information (CPI), President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of War Information (OWI), and Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine. [10]

The resulting resistance to and fear of potential government manipulation of the American public spurred this restriction on domestic activities. Senator Edward Zorinsky effectively captured the mood of the moment when he said, “By law, the [government] cannot engage in domestic propaganda. This distinguishes us, a free society, from the Soviet Union, where domestic propaganda is a principle government activity. The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. government propaganda directed at her or him.” [11]

Controversy and DebateEdit

Early ObjectionsEdit

Despite the confidence of the Smith-Mundt committee, the Act was controversial almost from the moment of its creation. Some believed that the effort was simply superfluous and wasteful, an argument Representative John Bennett voiced, saying “for more than 200 years…people have known that the United States meant freedom in the fullest connotation of the term….Things which are self-evident require no proof.” [12] Others resisted the legislation in the name of the First Amendment’s protection of the media’s rights, citing the competitive advantage a government news agency would have over privately financed media. Congressman Hale Boggs drew on Cold War tensions, likening such competition with a free press to authoritarian control of the media. [13] Though the government insisted the intent was never to compete with or undermine private media, the controversy continued to rage, with great division within the news media itself. Some news agencies such as the Associated Press and United Press refused to sell news to the State Department, claiming that “government involvement in news distribution was contrary to the ‘principle of freedom of access to the news and the free flow of news around the world,’” while others, including the New York Times and Washington Star, actively supported the bill. A number of court cases attempted to address the issue, as in the 1996, when Ralph Nader requested USIA records under the Freedom of Information Act. The Federal Court ultimately upheld the validity of Smith-Mundt, denying the right to access such material.

Current DebatesEdit

The Smith-Mundt Act remains in effect today, although its interpretation has shifted over time through court cases and changing political contexts. Though it continues to “set the parameters of American efforts to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences,” Armstrong and others argue that the Act no longer serves its original goals and philosophy, and is “viewed almost exclusively as an anti-propaganda law that ignores Congressional intent and purpose.” [14] The most fervent critics continue the early argument that Smith-Mundt obstructs the free flow of information, acting as little more than a “thin veil of censorship,” and undermines the American public’s ability to effectively understand and critique its government’s activities abroad. Bryan Hill, author of “The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward,” offers the following assessment of the Act’s negative effects:

The “domestic dissemination prohibition” prevents U.S. citizens from knowing about vital communications activities and shields those activities from valuable scrutiny needed to ensure their effective operation. The restrictions placed upon information dissemination serve to limit the possibilities for civilian outreach abroad and involvement in the global struggle for hearts and minds. General ignorance of public diplomacy as a result of the SMA also results in gross misunderstandings of the subject, and renders it subject to exaggeration and hyperbole. Finally, the prohibition on domestic dissemination runs directly counter to the “right to know” philosophy at the heart of this country’s information environment, especially since government communications activities conducted abroad are done on the taxpayer’s dollar. [15]

Another argument against Smith-Mundt that has gained increasing momentum in recent years notes the inefficacy of the effort as a result of modern communication technology:

While political warriors and information operations practitioners are irrationally prevented from doing their jobs, U.S. public diplomats have figured out ways to circumvent the antiquated statute. Since the mid-1990s Americans have been able to access U.S. public diplomacy information by accessing foreign-owned servers and snatching radio and TV broadcasts out of the air with modern antennas and receivers. Also, in quiet acknowledgement of the futility of the Smith-Mundt Act, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been running websites that contain the texts of their global broadcasts. Thus, one can plainly see that the vagaries of a 1940s law cannot reign in flow of information, ideas, and news that occurs today. It is senseless and counterproductive to try. [16]

Of even greater significance and impact than the technology mentioned above is the Internet, with its ability to facilitate the instantaneous exchange of information around the world. William P. Kiehl, Diplomat in Residence at the Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, has said that “the provision of the Smith-Mundt Act…has become both unenforceable and unnecessary in the age of global communication, 24/7 news and worldwide use of the internet.” Director of the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, Josh Fouts echoes the sentiment, asking “How do you explain Smith-Mundt’s incongruous existence in a society that champions free speech and in an era in which the Internet effectively makes it a moot policy?”

In addition to issues relating to technological viability, critics have voiced concern about Smith-Mundt’s role in times of war, specifically in the context of the U.S. “war on terror.” Intelligence expert Andrew Garfield discussed the Act’s effect on the ground:

U.S. military lawyers fear “blowback” to U.S. domestic audiences, which they interpret as a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibited domestic distribution of propaganda meant for foreign audiences. As a result, U.S. commanders forbid coalition authorities to openly engage on the Internet. This decision has ceded this key tool to the Iraqi insurgents. The insurgents now provide, over the Internet, self-starter kits to transform any disaffected Muslim youth, be he in Ramadi, Rabat or Rochester, into an effective propagandist. Such mass mobilization allows the insurgents to overwhelms at minimal cost the expensive, pedestrian, and ineffective strategic advertising campaigns of the coalition…In the war on terrorism, this restriction is worse than an anachronism: It amounts to self-sabotage. Until Congress relegates this piece of legislation to the dustbin of history, the U.S. cannot expect to conduct public diplomacy effectively [17]

The truth in such criticism is recognized within the government, but the potential retraction of the Act is not so simple, as Former USIA attorney John Lindberg explains:

There is a very real question about the enforceability of the [domestic dissemination] ban. You’ll notice there are no criminal provisions, there are no penalties at all. And so, to a certain extent, it’s a law without teeth. But it is really very difficult for the U.S. Information Agency to be in a position to relax the law…because it is the USIA that will always be suspect, whether they deserve it or not, of being the agency that will want to flood the United States with propagandistic material. If there’s even a hint that they’re doing that, some Senator or Congressman up on Capitol Hill is going to slap their wrists for it…[by] cutting their funds or passing even more restrictive legislation. [18]

The Future of Smith-MundtEdit

The Smith-Mundt Act’s resilience is evident in its persistent resistance to challenges, and it seems unlikely that the Act will be repealed in the near future. There are, however, clear problems in the efficacy and relevance of the domestic dissemination ban in today’s context of modern politics and technology, which will undoubtedly have to be addressed if the Act is to remain an effective and legitimate foundation for America’s Public Diplomacy policy. A wide range of suggestions have been made, a few of which are outlined below:

Juliana G Pilon, a Professor of Politics and Culture at the Institute of World Politics, responds to the range of concerns about the Act’s legitimacy and efficacy, suggesting a full retooling of Smith-Mundt, including the complete and immediate elimination of the domestic dissemination ban, among other proposals:

  • Congress should immediately repeal Section 501
  • Congress should require all agencies involved in any form of public diplomacy to report these activities to the National Security Adviser for a comprehensive tally.
  • Until then, Congress should require the State Department, USAID, and all other agencies conducting public diplomacy to submit or post on the Web an annual report listing all relevant publications and activities so that Americans can be informed of how we are communicating our values and principles as well as our generosity abroad.
  • Congress should mandate that all public servants who engage in public diplomacy must receive specific training and should expressly allocate “career enhancement” funds to that purpose
  • Current ambassadors, foreign service officers, USAID employees, and other relevant government personnel engaged in public diplomacy outreach should be required to undergo intensive additional training prior to their next deployment overseas
  • U.S. government grantees and contractors should be required, rather than be forbidden, to inform the public about their activities, contingent on security considerations
  • The U.S. government should expand its efforts to encourage the private sector to engage in public diplomacy activities and to provide citizen ambassadors with relevant information to help them in this task. [19]

Bryan Hill seems optimistic about the potential for reinvigorating Smith-Mundt by addressing major points of concern, and offers a more tempered approach:

The Smith-Mundt Act is in need of a serious retooling. Conveniently, the language of the legislation is simple, its length short, and its problems easily remedied. Lawmakers can eliminate the lion’s share of the SMA’s inefficiencies through alteration of the “shall not be disseminated” working in the prohibition clause. The amended version of the clause could read, for example: “such information shall be made available within the United States, its territories and its possessions.” Active dissemination would not be needed – those interested in public diplomacy and its related disciplines could, of their own free will, access and analyze the words and deeds of the government. This sort of freedom would not constitute propaganda, it would be a step towards increased government openness. Next, Congress needs to excise the injunctions that mandate that the government must wait a dozen years before fully disclosing foreign-disseminated material in the U.S. As has been shown, such restrictions are irrelevant in the modern era – one judge has issued an opinion on the matter, deriding the SMA’s restrictions as “inappropriate or even stupid.”…Making these changes does not require reinventing the wheel. The alteration of a few mere sentences would affect a seismic positive shift in the way public diplomacy, strategic communications, and information operations are conducted by the U.S. government. American citizens would be wiser, safer, and more secure because of it. Congress and the Administration need to get it done. [20]


Whatever form the Smith-Mundt Act ultimately takes, it seems clear that it will remain a major point of debate in the policy realm for some time to come, and that its impact, both historically and in contemporary politics, will cement its place in American policy as one of the most influential initiatives of foreign relations and public diplomacy.

Smith-Mundt in the NewsEdit

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Further ReadingEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. Adair, Kristin. "Rumsfeld's Roadmap to Propaganda." National Security Archive. 26 Jan 2006. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB177/index.htm>.
  2. Hill, Bryan. "The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward." Occasional Papers Series. Apr. 2007. The Center for Security Policy. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/Modules/NewsManager/Center%20publication%20PDFs/OCC%20Smith%20Mundt.pdf>.
  3. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  4. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  5. Lindsay, Beverly. "Integrating International Education and Public Diplomacy: Creative Partnerships or Ingenious Propaganda? ." Comparative Education Review Vol. 33, No. 4Nov. 1989 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/pss/1188447>.
  6. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  7. <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  8. <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  9. Snyder, Alvin A.. "Is the Domestic Dissemination Media Ban Obsolete?." U.S. Foreign Affairs in the New Information Age:. The Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University. . 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.annenberg.northwestern.edu/pubs/usfa/usfa4.htm>.
  10. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  11. Snyder, Alvin A.. "Is the Domestic Dissemination Media Ban Obsolete?." U.S. Foreign Affairs in the New Information Age:. The Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University. . 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.annenberg.northwestern.edu/pubs/usfa/usfa4.htm>.
  12. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  13. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  14. Armstrong, Matt. "Rethinking Smith-Mundt." Small Wars Journal (2008) 11 Aug 2008 <http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/77-armstrong.pdf>.
  15. Hill, Bryan. "The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward." Occasional Papers Series. Apr. 2007. The Center for Security Policy. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/Modules/NewsManager/Center%20publication%20PDFs/OCC%20Smith%20Mundt.pdf>.
  16. Hill, Bryan. "The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward." Occasional Papers Series. Apr. 2007. The Center for Security Policy. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/Modules/NewsManager/Center%20publication%20PDFs/OCC%20Smith%20Mundt.pdf>.
  17. Pilon, Juliana G.. "Obsolete Restrictions on Public Diplomacy Hurt U.S. Outreach and Strategy." 03 Dec 2007. The Heritage Foundatoin. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.heritage.org/research/NationalSecurity/bg2089.cfm>.
  18. Snyder, Alvin A.. "Is the Domestic Dissemination Media Ban Obsolete?." U.S. Foreign Affairs in the New Information Age:. The Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University. . 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.annenberg.northwestern.edu/pubs/usfa/usfa4.htm>.
  19. Pilon, Juliana G.. "Obsolete Restrictions on Public Diplomacy Hurt U.S. Outreach and Strategy." 03 Dec 2007. The Heritage Foundatoin. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.heritage.org/research/NationalSecurity/bg2089.cfm>.
  20. Hill, Bryan. "The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948: Comments, Critiques, and the Way Forward." Occasional Papers Series. Apr. 2007. The Center for Security Policy. 11 Aug 2008 <http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/Modules/NewsManager/Center%20publication%20PDFs/OCC%20Smith%20Mundt.pdf>.

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